Governor's warm words hold promise

January 23, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ALL OF a sudden, just 22 minutes into Parris Glendening's State of the State address last week, there came the most remarkable frenzy on the State House floor, which may have lasted as long as two seconds: the sound of camera shutters clicking madly away at unanticipated action.

The governor of Maryland had removed one of his hands from his lectern, and he raised it to gesture. It looked almost lifelike. And not a photographer within clicking distance wanted to miss such a thrilling photo opportunity.

Do I mock this governor? Today, no. Because he gave such a decent speech last week, full of lovely intentions and what might even have been heartfelt emotions, I merely want to point out part of our confusion about this man.

He's a web of contrasts. Because he conducts himself in such a stiff, professorial manner (OK, he's dweeb-like), and speaks with all the flair of John Philip Sousa trying to decipher Duke Ellington, and because he's got such a track record of duplicitous political-financial behavior, it's easy to overlook some of his message last week.

But he said some important things. He told us that, in a time of great prosperity, we have to think about our souls a little bit. He mentioned not only the easy stuff, like keeping kids away from tobacco and child-proofing guns (in truth, no governor has ever had such harsh, unvarnished words about the gun lobby), but also the way some of us lead fulfilling lives and others do not.

"Do we want a society," Glendening asked, "where some live in isolated, gated communities on 5-acre lots while others live in run-down apartments and struggle daily in declining communities?

"No," he said a moment later, "that is not the society we want." He talked about "invest[ing] in existing communities," about "breathing new life into our neighborhoods and downtowns," and about closing "the divide between wealthy, sprawling suburbs and declining cities."

On the last, it was a little difficult to tell whether he meant the geographical divide or the socioeconomic one. But, since one is based on the other, it still struck a chord.

Such words might have been spoken by William Donald Schaefer (except that, against tradition, the state comptroller didn't bother to show up for the speech) or Kurt Schmoke, or Martin O'Malley. This governor was saying things to warm the heart of anyone who believes in communities where people do not hide from each other or need to.

"A remarkable $940 million state surplus," the governor said. "And this is even after enacting 21 tax cuts that has put $2.4 billion back into the hands of our citizens."

In the House balcony, digesting all this, was Mayor O'Malley. He looked like a guy hearing about some fabulous party and wondering why he's the only one who wasn't invited.

"Yeah," O'Malley said when the speech was over, "it did feel that way. He talked about low unemployment and low poverty, and I had images of East Baltimore and West Baltimore and Park Heights Avenue. It's not his fault, necessarily, but it is incongruous.

"He talked about improving the schools, and I looked down at Pete," O'Malley said. He meant Del. Howard P. Rawlings. "Will we get what our schools need?

Yes, the governor indicated in his speech. But by week's end there was loud grumbling about empty rhetoric: not enough money to hire new teachers across the state, and not enough money to close the vast computer gap between suburban schools and Baltimore's.

"The governor who wears the mantle of the `education governor' will need to act like one for the rest of session," Rawlings said.

And then, as O'Malley wondered aloud after Glendening's speech, what about "the public safety thing"?

The killing continued in Baltimore: 19 homicides in the first 19 days of the new year, 10 in the past week. In his State of the State speech, the governor spoke disparagingly about the gun industry, which has held weapons to the entire country's head.

"We know that the industry will not do what is right until we make them do what is right," Glendening said. "And we can make them do it. We can make Maryland the national leader in the fight against gun violence."

From other lips, such words might stir even the most cynical, burned-out, bought-off legislators. But the words come from Glendening. Whatever passion stirs within him is always measured against other factors: not only his stiff manner, and the times where his words and the numbers don't match up, but political and financial deals where he's been caught with his manipulations showing.

It was lovely to hear this governor bring us so much good news last week. These are remarkable economic times, with money to spend on things previously only imagined. Now we will see whether he puts our money where his mouth is and whether legislators will follow, or whether this opportunity is just a blip in time, where the camera shutters snap for a few seconds and then everything goes lifeless again.

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